Colonial Articles

Why Did George Washington Want to Cross the Delaware on Christmas Night?

Posted by on Feb 16, 2016 in Colonial Articles, Historical Articles | 8 comments

20150331_173342 -CH -webIt’s common knowledge that General George Washington and his army crossed the Delaware River on Christmas Night in 1776, but what’s not as well-known are the reasons why he chose that particular night to cross. It’s the “why”—the story behind the historical fact—that draws us in and makes this piece of American history come alive.


After experiencing a string of humiliating defeats throughout 1776 at the hand of the British army, General George Washington ordered his soldiers to retreat from New York on November 21st. British troops pursued them.


Washington and his soldiers fled to Trenton, New Jersey where they found themselves pinned between the Delaware River and the British in early December. Washington refused to surrender and ordered his men to cross the river into eastern Pennsylvania. Rather than chase the exhausted and poorly equipped Americans, as they should have done, the British called off the fight.


Safe in Pennsylvania for the time being, Washington’s army made camp near the Delaware on December 7th. Although he had avoided capture, the situation General Washington found himself in couldn’t have been much worse.


On January 1st—just days away—all of his soldiers’ enlistments would expire. Worse, Washington knew that his troops had no incentive to reenlist. Many were shoeless. Most wore ragged summer clothing. The sick went without medicine and the healthy went without food. No one had received pay in months. Between these conditions and their repeated defeats, the army was demoralized.


It wasn’t only the soldiers who were dispirited. Farther downstream in Philadelphia, which was virtually undefended, the members of Congress were keenly aware of their army’s repeated failures against the British forces. They also knew the British army stood sixty miles away. After giving General Washington full power over the army, Congress packed up and fled the city. So did most of Philadelphia’s inhabitants.


Realizing New Jersey’s colonists’ support for the war had dwindled, the British issued a proclamation that offered a free and general pardon to all Americans who would take the oath of allegiance to King George III and pledge their peaceable obedience. Thousands in the colony rushed to take the oath and pledge to the British Crown.


Washington needed a victory to regain the support of the colonists and his troops. Now. Before the enlistments ended and he had no soldiers.


Spies informed Washington that 1,500 Hessian soldiers under the command of Colonel Johann Rahl had arrived in Trenton—almost directly across the Delaware River from the American encampment—and taken up winter quarters. These German mercenary soldiers had been hired by the British to help fight the Americans and were considered the most highly-trained fighters in Europe. Several months earlier, the same Hessians now living in Trenton had used their 17-inch-long bayonets to slaughter hundreds of young teenage American soldiers during the battle of Brooklyn Heights.


While his soldiers and officers feared the nearby Hessians, Washington viewed their presence as an opportunity. Because armies at this time rarely fought during winter, Washington believed his troops stood a decent chance at achieving a victory if he could launch a surprise attack.


But when would be the best time? General Washington shrewdly reasoned it was right before daybreak on December 26th—when the unsuspecting Hessians would be taking it easy after celebrating Christmas the day before. And in order to keep his army’s advance upon the Hessians a secret, Washington knew his men had to cross the Delaware River in the cloak of darkness on December 25th—Christmas Night.


Washington’s officers were convinced the attack would fail. Most tried to talk him out of it. But Washington understood that unless he made an attempt to win a victory before the year ended, without an army the colonies’ quest for independence would cease. Not even a severe winter blizzard on Christmas Day that made the crossing treacherous caused his resolve to waver. He set his plans in motion.


The army crossed the ice-filled Delaware in secrecy on Christmas Night. After marching in the darkness for hours through snow and sleet, Washington’s raggedly dressed and mostly barefoot men arrived undetected at Trenton in the morning and defeated the Hessians during a battle that lasted less than forty-five minutes.


The engagement’s tally: twenty-one Hessians killed, 90 wounded, and 900 captured. The Americans suffered no battle casualties.


Morale soared in Washington’s army. Throughout the colonies, men rushed to enlist as news of the Trenton victory spread. The colonists’ and Congress’ confidence in the American army’s ability to defeat the British and win their liberty had been restored.


Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas Night in 1776 is more than a dry historical fact. It is the fascinating story of one man and his army who, facing overwhelming adversity, refused to give up and persevered until they achieved a victory that turned the tide in the war to win our country’s independence from Great Britain.



Questions for discussion:

1) Did you know the full story as to why George Washington crossed the Delaware River on Christmas Night before reading this?

2) Has there been a time in your life when everything was against you, but you knew you had to press on?

3) What similarities do you see between George Washington and our current leaders?


A note from Cynthia: There are innumerably more details about Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, however, my goal on Cynthia Howerter – all things historical is to present brief and general overviews of historic events.



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Award-winning author Cynthia Howerter loves using her training in education, research, writing, and speaking to teach and inspire others about a time in America that was anything but boring. A member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), Cynthia believes that history should be alive and personal.

You can find Cynthia on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Pinterest. Need a speaker? Leave a comment with your contact information.

All written content and photographs ©2010-2016 Cynthia Howerter and are not to be used without prior written authorization.




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Eggnog – A Christmas Tradition

Posted by on Dec 9, 2014 in Colonial Articles, Historical Articles | 8 comments


Americans have always loved their eggnog. Although the egg and milk-based punch actually originated in Britain where it derived from a medieval beverage called “posset,” it was brought to the American colonies where it remained popular. Thanks to the numerous farms in the American colonies, eggs and milk were not only abundant, but readily available to most people, allowing citizens from all walks of life to enjoy eggnog punch.

Wealthier colonists added expensive wines and brandies to their eggnog, while the affordability of rum made it a common addition to the average person’s nog. No matter what type of alcohol was used, its addition to eggnog most certainly delivered a “punch”—hence the significance of that term.


It’s not known exactly how the name “eggnog” came into being. During the seventeenth century, drinks were served in wooden cups and mugs called “noggins.” It seems logical that the serving of the egg-based drink in a noggin was combined into one word, “eggnog.” Perhaps after one had consumed several noggins of the alcohol-laced punch, it was just easier to lift an empty mug and request a refill using an efficiency of words: “Egg—nog—if ye please.”


George Washington loved eggnog and hand-wrote his own recipe for it. Using rye whiskey from his distillery as well as sherry and rum from the Caribbean, Washington noted that the concoction should be “tasted frequently” as it cured in a cool place for several days. As he did not identify who the taster should be, we will leave that to our glorious imaginations.


Over two-hundred years later, Americans still enjoy their eggnog, especially during the Christmas holidays. While it can be purchased ready-to-drink, there’s nothing like the taste of homemade eggnog.




Our family and guests have enjoyed the following recipe for several generations. I do hope you’ll try my recipe, and as you lift a cup in a toast, remember to thank our forefathers for passing along this traditional beverage.


Cynthia Howerter’s Eggnog Punch

12 large eggs, separated (can use pasteurized eggs, available at most grocery stores)

2 cups granulated sugar

2 cups whole milk

4 cups heavy cream

2 cups half-and-half

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg (optional)

Ground nutmeg for dusting


In a large mixing bowl, beat the 12 egg yolks with the sugar until thick. Gradually add the milk, cream, half-and-half, and the optional nutmeg, if desired. Chill. In another large bowl, beat the 12 egg whites until stiff peaks form; fold whites into the cream mixture. Refrigerate until well-chilled. Sprinkle with nutmeg before serving. Serve cold.


Photographs ©Cynthia Howerter 



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Christmas Decorations in Colonial Williamsburg

Posted by on Dec 5, 2014 in Colonial Articles, Historical Articles | 2 comments



Last year, my husband and I celebrated Thanksgiving Day in Colonial Williamsburg. We were delightfully surprised to find many doors and windows already adorned with the town’s famous Christmas decorations.




After admiring the many gorgeous wreaths displayed on stores and houses on Duke of Gloucester Street, I knew I had to have one for our front door. But while I adore hand-decorated wreaths, swags, and table decorations, I’m all thumbs when it comes to making them. Can you relate?


Not to worry! Colonial Williamsburg has had previous experience with people like us. Their outdoor garden shop in the heart of the old colonial capital sells made-to-purchase Christmas decorations. Let’s take a look.


Who could resist buying this lavish wreath with fresh scents of pine, oranges, apples, and pineapple? This would look wonderful on my front door.




For someone with a small front entrance, this pine wreath, which boasts a fresh pineapple, oranges, dried pods, yarrow, and several small flowers, might do quite nicely.




I saw my husband ogling over this beauty with its green oranges, apples, and pine cones. He’d nearly convinced me to purchase it until I spotted several other wreaths.




Ahh. This exquisite masterpiece with yarrow, green oranges, apples, pine cones, and dried lotus pods would look incredible on our door … but so would the one my husband liked. Sigh.




What a dilemma. Normally, when I can’t choose between two items, I buy them both. But because we have only one front door, my usual purchasing method was not going to work.


Needing more time to think about which wreath to purchase, I walked to the other side of the shop and discovered that the thoughtful Williamsburg folks also sell table decorations for members of the all-thumbs club! Who knew?


This arrangement would look splendid on my dining room table!



But this arrangement with the breath-taking purple larkspur, red pomegranate, holly, and magnolia leaves would look dazzling as well. By now, you can see that I was having a difficult time choosing what to purchase—but only because all of the Christmas decorations were to die for.




Seeing that I could not make a timely decision, my wonderful husband suggested that we leave the shop and head to the King’s Arms Tavern where we were to meet other family members. “You can make up your mind over dinner, Cynthia.”







Obviously, hubby did not realize that our cozy dining room would contain yet more stunning decorations …











…which further confounded my purchasing decision.






After a lovely dinner, my husband asked which Christmas decoration I’d decided to purchase.

“I’ll take them all.”

For some reason, my answer did not surprise him.


Photographs ©Cynthia Howerter


Colonial Williamsburg is located in Williamsburg, Virginia.


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Old Fort Niagara’s Colonial Trading Post

Posted by on Nov 11, 2014 in Colonial Articles, Historical Articles | 12 comments

As part of the research for the colonial historical novel I’m writing, I recently visited Old Fort Niagara near Youngstown, New York where the mouth of the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario.


The French Castle at Old Fort Niagara with Lake Ontario in the background


In 1726, the French military force in North America desired to build a fortification on this strategic site in order to control who traveled on the Niagara River. However, the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy owned this land and strenuously objected to the building of a fort. In order to appease the Iroquois and still meet their own military objective, the French purposely built the main building of the fortification to look like nothing more than a large residence. They named it the “French Castle.”


The French Castle at Old Fort Niagara


Eager to retain the Iroquois’s loyalty, the French shrewdly outfitted a room on the castle’s first floor as a trading post and stocked it with goods that the Indians desired to purchase. Cognizant of Europe’s insatiable desire for furs—especially beaver pelts that were used to make hats—the French encouraged the Indians to trade the furs they trapped for European goods. As would any woman who enjoys shopping, I was eager to spend some time in the French Castle’s trading post. Come with me as we take a look at some of the items that induced the Iroquois to part with their furs.


Bales of luxurious wool trade blankets were shipped from France to Old Fort Niagara. Before the Native Americans were able to purchase blankets, they used furs for warmth on a cold night. Notice the small keg containing trade tomahawks in the lower left corner which not only provided the owner with a sharp edge, but a pipe for smoking tobacco as well.


Bales of wool trade blankets


Hanging between bolts of colorful wool fabric is a metal trap used in hunting. Because Native Americans were unable to produce iron, these traps were a popular and fast-selling item, helping them acquire more furs for trading. Knives and trade beads are displayed on the bottom shelf.


Iron animal trap


Guns, snowshoes, kegs of cider, plates, iron cooking kettles, kegs of gunpowder, and silver jewelry enticed the buyer to part with his furs or money.


Goods for sale


Once the French learned what items were important to Native Americans, they imported large quantities from Europe. Because the Indians loved jewelry, the trading post offered a large selection of silver necklaces, pendants, and glass trade beads.


Bolts of fabric, silver jewelry, and trade beads


Note the animal pelts on the counter and the canoe and paddles hanging from the ceiling. Perhaps someone needed a canoe but didn’t have time to construct one.


A long view of the trading post


A customer has recently traded fox pelts for French-made goods.


Fox pelts


Traded furs were bundled and tied with cording …


Traded pelts


… or wrapped in canvas and sent to France where they were made into garments.


Pelts bundled in canvas


The man who ran the French Castle’s trading post not only slept in the store—perhaps to make certain his wares didn’t disappear during the night …



… he also cooked his meals in the trading post’s fireplace.



I’m glad you joined me on this tour of Old Fort Niagara’s trading post. Did you see anything that you’d like to purchase? I must admit that I loved the well-made silver jewelry imported from France. Because there’s so much more to see at the fort, I’ll return there on a later post.


A very special thank you to our wonderful Old Fort Niagara tour guide, Jim Watz, who graciously answered our many questions and to Robert Emerson, Executive Director of Old Fort Niagara, who met privately with my husband and me and provided valuable historical details, and to Hawk, a Seneca Indian employed at the fort who taught us about muskets and rifles.


Photographs ©Cynthia Howerter


Old Fort Niagara is located at Youngstown, New York.




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A Revolutionary War-era Cemetery Inspires

Posted by on Sep 4, 2014 in Colonial Articles, Historical Articles | 4 comments

The colonial historical fiction novel that I’m currently writing is set in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania during 1777. It was a frightening time for this county’s settlers, many of whom were Scot-Irish Presbyterians, on what was then part of the American frontier. Deadly, lightning-fast raids conducted by British-allied Iroquois war parties swept across the rural county while General George Washington and the ragtag Continental Army of ordinary men did their best to battle the highly-trained professional British army in the east.


The British burned American homes during the Revolutionary War (photo by Cynthia Howerter)

The British burned American homes during the Revolutionary War (photo by Cynthia Howerter)


The story of the people who tamed and defended Pennsylvania’s backcountry and fought in the Revolutionary War is dear to my heart—mostly because my ancestors were among them.


After conducting eight months of intensive research about that era on the Pennsylvania frontier, I needed to create the characters for my novel—and desiring to make them realistic, I knew where to turn for inspiration.


A previous visit to the old Warrior Run Presbyterian Church and burial ground in Northumberland County had impressed me with the number of church members who not only lived during the Revolutionary War period, but who served their fledgling country as soldiers in the war for independence. You may recall my July 9, 2014 article “The Warrior Run Presbyterian Church in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania” about this church.



The Warrior Run Presbyterian Church in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania (photo by Cynthia Howerter)


The first time I visited the historic church grounds, a well-maintained stone wall near the church caught my eye—and I knew I needed to investigate the enclosed cemetery more closely.



Warrior Run Presbyterian Church’s burial grounds (photo by Cynthia Howerter)


After parking my car underneath several ancient shade trees, I spotted an old iron gate.The iron latch was frozen in place from infrequent use, but I persevered until it released and allowed me to swing open the heavy gate and enter the peaceful enclosure.


Warrior Run Church Cemetery Gate

(photo by Julie Kane Trometter)


Inside the wall was a neatly laid out cemetery, the final resting place of many of the area’s early Scot-Irish Presbyterian settlers.


Warrior Run burial ground's neatly laid out graves (photo by Cynthia Howerter)

Warrior Run burial ground’s neatly laid out graves (photo by Cynthia Howerter)


I was intrigued by the numerous American flags held in place by metal markers and wondered which war the honored person had fought in. Walking past flag after flag, I was stunned by the number of men who had fought in the American Revolutionary War.


The peaceful resting place of American patriots (photo by Julie Kane Trometter)

The peaceful resting place of American patriots (photo by Julie Kane Trometter)


These were the very men who defended their communities from Iroquois war parties and battled the British so the American colonists would be able to govern themselves.


These men were not professionally trained soldiers. They were ordinary men—farmers, shopkeepers, husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, and friends—who did extraordinary feats to defeat the Iroquois and British Army—the most powerful Army on earth.


Untrained men and boys fought for our right to live free (photo by Cynthia Howerter)

Untrained men and boys fought for our right to live free (photo by Cynthia Howerter)


While some of these brave men traveled east and fought the British Army, others stayed home in Northumberland County and fought the British-allied Iroquois Indians whose goal was to destroy the homes and crops and lives of the settlers trying to eke out a living on what was then the American frontier.


The men and women whose final resting place is inside the protective stone wall of the Warrior Run Presbyterian Church’s cemetery are the people whose lives inspired the characters in my colonial historical novel. In their honor, my characters bear a mixture of some of their first and last names.


Let’s look at the gravestones of several American patriots and spend a quiet moment honoring those who put their lives on the line so that you and I can live a free life.


American Patriot Thomas Wallace (photo by Julie Kane Trometter)

American Patriot Thomas Wallace (photo by Julie Kane Trometter)



Patriot John Montgomery (photo by Julie Kane Trometter)

Patriot John Montgomery (photo by Julie Kane Trometter)



Patriot Thomas Barr (photo by Julie Kane Trometter)

Patriot Thomas Barr (photo by Julie Kane Trometter)



Patriot John Caldwell

Patriot John Caldwell (photo by Julie Kane Trometter)

A heartfelt thank you to my cousin and fellow DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) member, Julie Kane Trometter, for driving to the Warrior Run Presbyterian Cemetery and taking several of the photographs for this article.


Photographs by ©Julie Kane Trometter

Photographs by ©Cynthia Howerter


Historic Warrior Run Presbyterian Church and Cemetery are located at 246 Warrior Run Boulevard, Turbotville, Pennsylvania.

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The Warrior Run Presbyterian Church in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania

Posted by on Jul 9, 2014 in Colonial Articles, Historical Articles | 14 comments

The colonial historical fiction novel I’m currently writing is set in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania in 1777. Because I want my book to accurately reflect the Scot-Irish Presbyterians who lived in that area during the colonial time period, I have visited a number of local historical sites. Come along with me as we visit the 179-year-old Warrior Run Presbyterian Church and learn about Pennsylvania’s Scot-Irish settlers.


By the early 1700s, large numbers of Scot-Irish Presbyterians began emigrating from Northern Ireland to the American Colonies. Many of those who arrived at Philadelphia or several ports in Delaware began moving into Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. In addition to building homes there for themselves, they established Presbyterian churches which remain to this day.


In June, 1769, land in Northumberland County was made available for purchase. Many of the Scot-Irish sold their Lancaster County properties and bought land in this new area – then the unsettled frontier of the colonies. And being a godly people, they brought their Presbyterian faith with them.




The original Warrior Run Church was built about 1775. It was a log building situated next to where the Warrior Run Creek emptied into the Susquehanna River near present day Watsontown, Pennsylvania. In 1779, British-allied Seneca Indians burned down the log structure during the “Great Runaway” – a terrifying time in central Pennsylvania when settlers ran away from the area to escape marauding Indian war parties.


Once the threat of Indian attacks in Northumberland County had passed, the congregation rebuilt the church, but on land farther away from the creek and the river. This second building, also a log structure, was large enough to hold 300 worshippers. It burned to the ground in 1833, cause unknown.


Two years later, the congregation built the current building just feet away from where the second structure had stood. The congregants meant for their third building to last. Constructed with a limestone foundation and red brick walls, the one-story building is in the Greek Revival style.




Each of the church’s 13 windows contains 28 individual panes of original glass – a lavish expense when the rural church was built in 1835. As I looked through the windows, I noted the delightful bubbles and waves found in old glass.




The exterior shutters are functional. They were designed to be opened during warm weather to help cool the sanctuary and closed during winter to help keep the building warm.




The floor of the four-columned front portico is made from bricks and edged with limestone blocks.





Notice the herringbone pattern on the portico’s floor. Because limestone is plentiful in this section of Northumberland County, it was used as a base for the church’s foundation and porch.





On Sunday mornings, the congregants entered the large church via the two front doors.




The interiors of the old Presbyterian churches are austere. Because Presbyterians wanted to focus on worshipping God, their sanctuaries were devoid of “decorations” that could distract the people sitting in the pews.




Notice the lack of lighting inside the sanctuary. The Warrior Run Church never had electricity—or heat—installed. While the church is still used for special occasions, services are mostly held during the daytime in warmer months.




During the early 1800s, many members of rural Presbyterian churches actually paid rent in order to have their own pews. One of my Scot-Irish ancestors, Colonel John Kelly – a Revolutionary War officer from Northumberland County, rented Pew 33 in the nearby Buffalo Crossroads Presbyterian Church.


The main characters in my novel are Scot-Irish Presbyterians who purchased land in Northumberland County after leaving their home in Lancaster County. Their lives on the Pennsylvania frontier were fraught with danger. At times, it was difficult to distinguish a friend from an enemy. In such a sparsely populated area, the lines between right and wrong, good and evil could easily have been blurred. When the Indians massacred their families and friends, no settler would have been criticized had they decided to quit and leave. But along with their unwavering Presbyterian faith, the determination to succeed that had accompanied their fathers from Scotland to Northern Ireland had traveled with the sons across the Atlantic. These new Americans brought that same persevering spirit with them when they moved into Pennsylvania’s wilderness –  and when they chose to fight for American independence from Britain. During that dangerous and frightening era, the Scot-Irish Presbyterians set an exemplary example for us to follow in today’s unsettling times.


As we leave Warrior Run Presbyterian Church, please look in the background of the final photograph for a glimpse of the adjacent cemetery. In August, I will discuss how I found the names for the characters in my novel by walking through this cemetery.




Photographs ©Cynthia Howerter 


Historic Warrior Run Presbyterian Church is located at 246 Warrior Run Boulevard, Turbotville, Pennsylvania.

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